Also see Susan's review of The Internationalist
The musical by John Kander (music), Fred Ebb (lyrics) and Terrence McNally (book) premiered in 2001 in Chicago, and the Signature production reunites the star of that production, Rivera, with original director and choreographer Frank Galati and Ann Reinking, whose work is both sensitive and imaginative. At Signature Rivera is joined by another Broadway staple and double Tony Award winner, George Hearn, who ably conveys his character's growth from swaggering pride to touching gravitas.
What makes the show less than fully satisfying is that Kander and Ebb were experimenting with form: many of the songs are brief and lapse into dialogue rather than reaching an end, and the more tuneful songs echo earlier works in the songwriters' catalog. The overall effect is similar to that of Kiss of the Spider Woman, another tragic story lightened with humor (which also has a book by McNally and also starred Rivera).
The Visit is based on Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 1956 play, as adapted for American audiences by Maurice Valency. It's a funny yet scathing look at questions of morality and how groups of people can convince themselves and each other that the most immoral actions can be justified. (Dürrenmatt was Swiss, and he was writing not long after the devastation brought by World War II.)
The residents of the economically depressed Swiss town of Brachen are close to starvation; although Anton Schell (Hearn) runs a general store, no one can afford to buy anything. Their only chance for survival comes from Claire Zachanassian (Rivera), who left Brachen in disgrace at the age of 17 but now, several decades and seven husbands later, is the richest woman in the world. She is eager to bail out the town, but only if the residents agree to a condition that would seem unthinkable at the very least and is obviously impossible to fulfill. Still, Claire is patient, and she knows that – as she says of strangulation – "A little pressure in the right place, and the rest goes by itself."
The intimate MAX Theatre, configured with a thrust stage, brings the audience right into the action; the viewer's perspective is the edge of the ramshackle town square of Brachen, designed by Derek McLane with a rear wall that suggests the windows and doorways of a ruined factory, a wood plank floor, and a few set pieces in abstract space. Howell Binkley's lighting design helps to shape the playing area, and Susan Hilferty has created costumes that delineate both Claire's effortless elegance and the seediness of the townspeople.